Apr 25, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard (6) bats in the first inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Howard: Picking up the “Big Pieces”


Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Howard was as feared a slugger as any that has graced a Phillies uniform. He challenged the steroid free homerun record in 2006, but finished just shy of Roger Maris’ 61 number with 58. That was soon followed up with a World Series title in 2008, after a season that saw him slug 48 homeruns with 146 RBI’s. Howard seemed to have the world at his finger tips, well at least the baseball world. From 2006 to 2011, he had six straight seasons with at least 30 homeruns and 100 RBIs. While Howard’s career seemed to get a late start due to Jim Thome‘s presence in the organization, Howard appeared to be slugging at a hall-of-fame pace.

Ryan Howard is now in his mid-30′s and battling back from numerous leg injuries, as he tries to prove that he is still capable of great things.

The life of a baseball player, much like any pro athlete, is relatively short compared to other occupations. The great ones can keep the lights on longer by finding a way to keep producing to their standards, even though their bodies are wilting away. Injuries, or lack there of, play a key role in how the player survives, and Ryan Howard is coming off a period where he just couldn’t stay healthy.

A big bodied man that has been described as ‘country strong’, Howard suffered an Achilles tendon rupture, that was followed with a rash of leg and foot  injuries, that caused him to only play 151 games over the course of 2012 and 2013.

If you were comparing Ryan Howard and myself, and you realized that we had one thing in common, what would you think it would be? A knack for hitting game winning homeruns? Thanks! A 25 million dollar salary? I wish. Unfortunately for me, the only link between us is the Achilles rupture. It may be the most devastating injury a ball player can suffer besides an injury to your throwing arm.

For me, it took about six months before I could put any normal weight back on my foot after the tendon rupture, and about 10 to 12 months before I could run at a full clip. After a year of recovery, the doctors declared me fully healthy–I wasn’t fully healthy. I resumed playing baseball but something felt different, I was running differently, off balance and moving like I had a bucket on my foot. It felt strange and awkward, and it seemed like I had a rubber band attaching my foot to my leg. For the next two years I suffered numerous hamstring strains and calf injuries, culminating in a groin tear. In my personal opinion, all my injuries were due to the Achilles injury. The injury made me compensate my balance and change stride styles when I ran, something my body wasn’t accustomed to. I can honestly say that it took me three years to feel normal again, and to be able to feel free to run and play with no worries.

After listening to my story, doesn’t Howard’s recovery seem eerily similar?  The “Big Piece” as he was called, was back playing baseball in less then a year and while he might have way better medical care then me, something still seemed different. It looked like he was very uncomfortable and that genuine big smile appeared less frequently during games. His swing was off balance (because he couldn’t put wait on his back left leg) and it looked like he was compensating for the injury on the base paths and in the field.

Based off of his health status, should fans have been more understanding to Ryan Howard’s struggles in 2012 and 2013? Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012, when Howard came back, in my opinion, it was way too soon. His comeback led to knee  and foot complications, and in 2013 he was shut down in mid-season with a torn meniscus. He had complained of  knee soreness throughout the season, but he wasn’t medically deemed to have a serious injury until July. If my assumptions are correct, and my experience is the same, his knee issues specifically, can be directly connected to the tear he suffered to his Achilles in 2011.

That is his story for the last few years, injured and riddled by the fans and media for not only his contract, but his lack of performance to back it up. He is not the best defender-we already knew that. He strikes out too much-most power hitters do. He can’t hit lefties-most players on that side of the plate have that difficulty. To pick at a player for his deficiencies when you already know what your getting, is like buying a car with no wheels and complaining about it after the fact. No baseball player is perfect and has holes in their game. For what Ryan Howard does, he is very good at his job.

If you’ve ever seen a rubber band that has lost all it’s elastically it is much like what your tendon looks like after a rupture. Loose and floppy, it has no strength and provides no support for your foot. With time, it starts to heal and become firm and strong again (his Achilles, not the rubber band). Like I said, it took me three years to reclaim my health, and even with better medical care and conditioning, I think Ryan Howard is just now getting back to full-strength.

His strikeout rate is down (he still is going to strikeout a lot) and his walk rate is up, much like in his primes. His OPS is hovering in the mid .800s and he has hit two of his five April homeruns against lefties. Gone should be the thoughts of a platoon situation at first base and all eyes are watching Howard and how he progresses. Howard is 34 years old, and while not young, he is not too old to be one of the better power hitters in the game. Numerous power hitters have had outstanding years after their 35th birthday. Barring another setback, there’s no reason that Howard shouldn’t continue to progress in terms of his health, and join that group as he reaches his mid-30′s.

Things aren’t all perfect just yet, but even since the beginning of the season, Howard seems to have shown an increased ability to run the basepaths and to load up the weight on his backfoot as he swings. One would only assume that Howard could turn in some disgusting power outputs this year

With an unfortunate run of injuries in the past, Howard will try to re-capture his roll as one of the most feared power hitters in the game. His confidence in his health and ability to play should be re-established and Howard should have a chip on his shoulder from all the criticism he has received. I’m cheering for his bounce back season to continue, because if anyone in pro sports deserves it, he does.

 

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